Tonal Language

My cat just spoke to me. She's a talkative kitty, probably of a breed that cat books describe as "highly vocal." Non-cat people would just say that she meows a lot. To me, it seems like talking. We have conversations. There are complex patterns of tone and timing in her voice which in some instances are beautifully lyrical.

I describe this not to turn this into yet another random guy's website about his cats, but to introduce a question I'm having trouble framing. The thing is, when my cat talks to me, I swear it feels like speech. It's a subtle mental sensation, as though something were tickling my Wernicke's area. Somewhere in my skull, something is interpreting her vocalizations as language.

When speakers of English think of the components of language, they think in terms of consonants and vowels. But tone, the pattern of pitch in speaking, is also an important component of language. In English, tone can convey attitude or emotion, but in many languages, tone is phonemic, that is, a sequence of vowels and consonants spoken with one pattern of tone is an entirely different word than the same sequence with a different pattern.

Here's where I get wacky: What if tone in language now is a vestige of something older? What if our ancestors, long before modern language, had a language made of patterns of tone? Something primitive, hardwired, less flexible than the language instinct we have now? What if we still carry the remnants of its mechanisms in our genes, in our brains?

I know certain patterns of tone in music have an unmistakable effect on me. Certain specific moments in certain songs just get me. Of course, that could just be an emotional association I've formed during my lifetime, a trivial and common artifact of the evolution of one man's psyche. Or it could be an artifact of my culture, an arbitrary association between a set of notes and an emotion which is taught to us by the Western system of music. But it feels deeper.

If there is an ancient tonal language in us, I want to know more about it. It might mean that music and language are two branches of the same tree, and that would have implications about the meaning of music. Are composers unknowingly attempting to write treatises in a forgotten tongue? Are great composers simply those who got it right, reciting to us deep and moving poems in words only our unconscious minds can hear?

And if my unconscious has a language, could I speak to it deliberately, tell it things? Our understanding of the workings of our own minds is cloudy at best, and our relationship to our unconscious troubled. What if I could program my unconscious just by playing the right music? We try to do that now, we play peppy songs to cheer ourselves up, and we know certain songs make us sad, but those efforts are clumsy guesswork.

Neal Stephenson touches on this in Snow Crash, positing that Sumerian is primitive instinctive language that can be used to control people. I guess I'm positing that he was right, but that the answer is a lot farther back in our history.

I must stress that this is all ignorant speculation on my part. Others, with far more knowledge than I, have studied all of these subjects. But I don't know if anyone has framed the question quite this way. Unfortunately, I suspect I'm not qualified to answer it.

It could be that there is a profound truth about the human mind which we, as a civilization, won't grasp until the right circumstances come together. Maybe we have to wait until one day, fifty years from now, when some brilliant neurolinguist composer has a conversation with her cat.


I Don't Know

I prick up my ears whenever the description of a pattern or phenomenon requires the use of the words, "always," "never" or "every." That's an excellent predictor that the effects of the pattern or phenomenon in question will be broad and far-reaching. Maybe that's obvious, but nevertheless I pay attention to it.

An example:

In our educational system, children are asked questions. Ordinarily, in the questioner's mind there is an answer or the form of an answer. If the child's answer matches the one in the questioner's mind, the child receives praise. Otherwise, praise is withheld.

The answer which will elicit praise is never, "I don't know."

What effect does that have on our civilization?

What effect has it had on me?


Memetic Transmission

Imagine a religion which considered memetic transmission its highest priority. It would treat teaching as a highly demanding trade, and might train and select teachers the way current American society does for scientists, or the way it does for lawyers, or doctors (i.e. training is rigorous, selection is competitive, and they might even get paid well). This environment would probably also engender more study of and general attention to the topic of memetic transmission. In memetic transmission I include and emphasize the propagation of memes over generations.

In the long run, this group might be strong. The strategy might be as effective as the memetic/reproductive strategies of the Catholic or Mormon groups.

Come to think of it, reproduction might have to be a part of the system, too. Encourage members to on average at least keep each generation no smaller than the last. You wouldn't want to involuntarily follow the Shakers.

If a group of people treated as a virtue the understanding of and ability to craft a strong human mind, that group might become powerful. I think maybe that was what the Catholic church was doing with Jesuits and the like, but it's interesting that they segregated the memetic strategy from the genetic strategy. I think the Mormons may be doing a similar thing, at least with respect to business and political acumen, and in their case the genetic and memetic strategies are meshed. It seems to be working for the Mormons.

Hmm, the system I'm imagining stresses the open and inquisitive mind, and clear and rigorous thought. Perhaps such a system would be unstable; by its very nature people would wander away from it. Maybe that's why dogma-based systems are so common. But if one could find a way to keep an open-thought system from dissolving, it would probably be able to evolve and adapt more readily, and produce more new, useful ideas than a closed, dogma-based system.